I wouldn’t walk away from my mother’s dead body. After my sisters and I had washed her breasts, belly, arms, and smoothed scented cream over her soft, soft papery skin, skin like paper that floats, and we placed her pink gown over her head, looked at the blue, blue eyes, turquoise, a skim of the sea in her barely open eyes, and sang all the songs, childhood songs, songs we loved too, then my sisters asked if I was ready to go. They could leave that room and go out into the afternoon air and be parentless. I wondered how long the hospital would let me stay, if I could make a tent with blankets over our bodies and never separate.
I didn’t love her that much, I thought.
I didn’t know that we were joined until the nurse moved toward my mother’s body with a stethoscope and stopped.
“Oh my. She’s gone into agonal breathing.”
“Those are her last breaths.”
The breaths were beautiful, a membrane I could touch.
Whatever it is that dying is, was as alive as anything I knew.
When I was a girl, Mother sometimes left me alone with my grandfather, and then when I turned eight, we moved to Canada, and I was spared. Except for one visit home to Kentucky when I was twelve, that time before breasts, again in that small town where I was born near a crook on the Ohio River. Granddad and I were in the back-of-the-house of Guido’s, the pizza restaurant he ran with Mimoo, my mother’s mother. A thick wooden door led out back to a warehouse, where there were vats of chemicals, stacks of old chairs, chests of drawers. With the hope of getting rich, he’d started a furniture-stripping business. The air smelled of mozzarella and lye.
I heard a woman’s laugh, cherry lips, smoker’s rasp, all hustle. His silver-slicked head was into her then, and I turned to see their wrestle, something I’d never seen him do with Mimoo. He’d always played with me though, in the guise of being his favorite. Jostled me high on his lap, doled out dimes for my brother and sisters, handed me a shiny Kennedy silver dollar, made a show of it. He had rubbed against my little girl body in the same way that grandfathers have been doing for centuries.
I had learned to go silent, to live with my sexuality opened up, with no language for what had occurred. Now I was seeing grandad directing his affection onto a stranger. When they stopped kissing and looked in my direction, I turned and grabbed a roll of coins from the bank deposit, and went to the jukebox. I danced behind the windows of the closed restaurant, forbidden songs, like Me and Bobby McGee, shaking my tail (as the aunts would say) to Proud Mary. Rollin’ on the river in my hot pants and dancing boots.
Flushed, I went to the backroom, where he was cooking her a steak, sliding it onto a mound of cottage cheese, tomatoes so fleshy that you could see slice marks through them. My stomach flip-flopped in hunger and sadness. He would never let me eat with him. Her hands were on him, and he said something dirty before he saw me there. I turned my back to face the roll-top desk, my fingers on the pencil holder that slid to reveal a secret passageway. He didn’t put down the plates of sizzling fat, the fake antler-handled knife spearing their blood-juice. Instead, he held the meat under my face, leaned in close to my left ear, whispered, “If you tell anyone, I’m going to kill you.”
I don’t know where I go then, perhaps into a dimness where there are no debts to pay because there is no memory. I live like that for twenty or so years, sorrow-drinking, in and out of the bleak.
In that moment he split me. Away from Mother, away from Mimoo, away from my sisters, away from all of the women. I knew that I must be terrible, I must have to keep the women safe from me.
Making a scapegoat is a tested way to dispel any kind of self-hatred. In my family, as in most families, there usually was one of us designated to take the blame for things going awry. If fear is the anticipation of future pain, then the collective pretending it takes to impugn an innocent is humanity’s lived despair. I used this damning culture to rid myself of my mother, and therefore, my logic went, save us both from being destroyed.
I tried to keep the secret by avoiding most of the women in my family. I could not hear their yarns, nor laugh at their jokes. I no longer sat on the porch swing with Mimoo. When my father belittled my mother at the dinner table, I joined in, ready to separate myself from her chatter with my knowledge of history and politics. I would not become lesser, the scapegoat.
My mother was more humorous than any of us, a genius of the facial gag, rolling her eyes and yukking it up like I Love Lucy. She was what they called a “cut-up” in her day—she would take anything and turn it on its head, including being the butt of the joke. When we moved to Canada, a radio DJ would call our house to get her on the line, to not only hear her Southern accent, but also her ribald tales. She had no filter between what she thought and what came out of her mouth, and this made her a comedian and an innocent fool. Still, I joined my father in deriding her lack of book sense, her financial errors, her domestic faux pas. All in the notion that this denigration was funny.
Once, she kept a pressure cooker full of soup on the stove overnight and it blew up, spewing bean-flesh and smoke everywhere. This became one of our favorite family tales, the saga of how-we-nearly-didn’t-get-out-alive. These stories defined the kind of woman I wanted to become—the opposite of that. My shame kept me from seeing who she really was.
It turns out I couldn’t save any of the women. When I turned thirteen, my grandfather flew the coop, taking all of the money and the floozy (as my mother called her) that I’d seen him kiss. In the wake of his disappearance, Mimoo had a nervous breakdown, my mother went to care for her, and put me in charge of maintaining our household of five. I hated the domesticity, the endless washing up, and the expectations that I was suited for this. I was now certain that I caused the women in my life nothing but suffering. The only thing that could assuage my guilt was to resist becoming weak.
The day before my mother’s death, I was in the TV-filled SeaTac airport, waiting to fly across the country, to Kentucky, where, with my siblings, we would make the decision to take our mom off life support. It was the morning of Christmas Eve. The hospital staff were placing my mother on paralytic drugs to keep her hands from pulling the tubes from her throat, something she’d done twice the night before.
Storms were pounding the South, and flights were delayed, re-routed.
On the television screens at the airport, Trump was running for President and the cameras were following him. His followers didn’t turn away when he spoke in vulgar terms about women. Trump said his running mate’s bathroom break during a Democratic candidates’ debate was “too disgusting” to talk about. He referred to women bleeding from “their wherever,” and was insistent that “grabbing pussy” was normal. White men nodded their heads for Trump not despite his attacks on women, but because of them.
Radical right parties around the world were adopting a fiercely gendered discourse. Even in tolerant Canada, internet phenomena like “incels” and psychology professor Jordan Peterson were appealing to a frail masculinity imperiled by perceptions of emasculating feminists, and effeminate liberals. Males intimidated by women rising to power yearned for fixed gender roles. This threatened identity was showing its violent potential in displays at Trump rallies and Conservative party events, where a growing number of white nationalists flocked to the campaign tent to listen to candidates fluent in the stories of disaffected whites.
The deep human desire for belonging can be twisted into imagining threats where none exist, and one mechanism for doing so is toxic masculinity, which enlists white women in upholding its rationale, like my father did in acculturating me to what was necessary to succeed in my family—by assuring dominance to those who play along. I benefited from being allied with the patriarchy, though its form was not interested in equality. The patriarchy believes there is no authority without maleness. And male violence is a patient who will not be paralyzed.
The women I knew taught me that the threat of violence requires a trickster. We all told stories that circled around each other. Tales that swoop—head out for new territory, double back upon themselves—also tend to disarm. You shall know us by our illogical meanings, by the ways we hide ourselves in plain sight. Because in a world that hates women and girls, hates the ever-present other, defusing outsized masculinity is just one of the things we must do to stay alive.
When I was a child, Mother and Mimoo told me Uncle Wiggly stories of a man-hare sent out for sugar, who comes back in a snowstorm, climbs to fix a roof, and then leaves the bag in the eaves. Later, the children discover the mishap has sweetened the icicles draped across the winter sky. I asked for this story over and over, not so much for its meaning, but to hear those maternal drawls, honey-biscuit tender, the shy laughter when they got tickled, (as the mothers called their amusement) Mimoo covering her wide grin with her palm when she squealed to see our rapt faces. I wasn’t so interested in the aging rabbit, but I imagined that his housekeeper, Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy ruled her domain. She was the hired girl who let the old hare think he was the adventurous one. I liked Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy because that deep-diving muskrat was an herbalist, strategist, warrior, and swimmer, and she didn’t let anyone fuck with her.
I listened to those magical stories, and then when I entered puberty—just as my grandfather’s death threat came—I left the world of singsong stories and began to compete for attention and resources.
If I was going to eat the sins of the clan, then I would do so with vigor. I would make daddy proud, and never own up to what I saw going on in my home, the ways my father beat my sister and I, the pills my mother took to stay silent. Until my mother got sick, I never really wanted to see the fullness of who she was.
When my husband was diagnosed with a terrible, ravaging cancer, he chose a radical surgery and treatment. He died on the table that night, but his body remained. He lost the memories of his life—our wedding day, the birth of our children, his own childhood, his entire identity. The next dozen years we lived together would become about what remains when there isn’t a shared history. The ways we knew each other because we were each other. The living and the writing of this event was a kind of liberation from all that came before. In a necessary power-switch, my husband became the one who keeps the house, and I entered the world more fully as sovereign. Although caregiving a man with a brain injury had once been a necessary role, I continue to release myself from social and emotional labor done on behalf of my family.
But those weeks we lived in the cancer center, my mother didn’t contact me. Finally, when my sister yelled at her for being out of touch, she managed a five-minute conversation. Our mother had no desire to communicate by distance, but she would talk for days if you came to visit.
In her later years, when I rang her, she would say, “I’ll never forgive myself for not calling you when you were struggling in the cancer center.” I told her we couldn’t do anything about the past. But what I should have said is that she needn’t include me in her caregiving. That two decades of domestic life was enough. That I could see that what was arduous was being the bridge between the Rosie the Riveters of her mother’s generation, and the Ms. Magazine feminists of my generation. I would have liked to ask her what she would be if she never had to obligate herself to the expectations of domesticity.
After my husband’s memory loss, I had finally begun to ask who my mother was. I asked her what she loved.
“Reality shows,” she said.
“What do you love about them?” I asked.
“I like how they’re so like life, only more dramatic.”
I judged her for this too, until I remembered that I am a storyteller.
The brokenness can also open you. When granddad whispered kill kill kill, he opened a portal where the stories come through. Words begin on a page because I hear characters. Their voices speak into my left ear, as he did, years ago.
Forgiveness of my mother and myself taught me that the way to break scapegoating is to remember that we are connected in our brokenness. (This is not the same as being consoled by our shared illusions.) We are not separate. Let me whisper it into your ear: We are not separate.
If you’re going to suffer on behalf of the collective, there’s no obligation for anyone to be grateful. Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy knew this. She could saw a raft out of a corn stalk with her teeth, and swim forever underwater, and took no shit from boys nor ferrets. Sammie and Susie Littletail and Uncle Wiggly Longears never wondered about giving her a break from her household duties. After she saved the day, Fuzzy Wuzzy scurried back to the kitchen and made everyone a cabbage tea. Think of what they were selling us with that story, the womanly servitude, the endless management of the familial responsibilities. The lack of orientation toward pleasure. I like to imagine that Nurse Jane dumped domesticity for a truly feral life. I like to think the muskrat woman is out there sexing the waters.
After all of the time living in the city, raising children, teaching adults, learning how to wrangle words, my beautiful husband, the man I have loved since I was a girl, found us a home on Muskrat Street, located in a national park, where I could run wild. This is exactly how he is a healer for me.
I do not ask what happens after a person dies. My question is: can we see ourselves in everything, including the ones we call enemy? Can we touch the dead that is the aliveness changing form?
When my mother dies, my children and husband are not with me. At my request, they stayed home all the way across the country, because it was Christmas Day, and I wanted them to have something sweet. And this too—I didn’t know that my mother would die. Even though I was flying across the country to take her off a ventilator, we did not know whether her dying would take hours, or days, or weeks.
After they shut down the machinery, her limbs began to move in spiral shapes, circling in and around her torso. The nurses gave her morphine, assessing that this motion was pain. I didn’t know what it was. It felt like her body was drawing me back toward her in death. Except for the time I’d existed in her body, we hadn’t been inseparable. Now that she was going, I entered the motion of her, as if I was her.
Death is inexplicable, they say. Or else they make up some story about where we go, who we’ll be with later, so we might envision a continuance. What stayed with me in those last moments was her breaths, the unwinding of her body, the twists, the moans, the rapid inhales, followed by the easing down, spare, slight bird-breaths, bare threads tangling toward my body, so pulsing with her essence that I felt I was carrying her.
I know this—I carried her into that death room where she began to exit. I’ve been carrying her. I can’t let her go.
Motherness and otherness is prone to reproach, though it is so clear to me now—having broken from generations of living in pretense—that the source of censure is our fear of death. We are afraid of our destiny—we are going to change forms. We are going to become compost, and if we are lucky, we will watch everyone we love die. The woman who bleeds and sits in the pleasure of her body is the dominant male’s worst fear. She is a reminder that he is in a body that aches and bleeds too, that he is decaying, that his story, his heroism, his hold on history, is ending. Indeed, a woman attending to a dying or dead body is a feminist act, for death is not then a distant performance oriented to funereal methods that seek to prettify a corpse. This terrifying dilemma of living while awake to being moments from rotting is the fulcrum of existence. This awareness of death might show us that we are now free to contemplate the meaning of our own life.
Before my mother’s death, I was living in the ghost world of women, bargaining with the patriarchy. I’m not sad about learning this, for it’s the beginning of transferring that wisdom onto myself. We are not separate, my mother and I.
Sonya Lea’s memoir Wondering Who You Are was a finalist for the Washington Book Awards, as well as an international memoir award, and was named a BBC Top Ten Book, and an Editor’s Pick at Oprah. Her essays and excerpts have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Ms. Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and more. She teaches writing in the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rockies. Her work can be found at www.wonderingwhoyouare.com.